For most high school hoops fans, there is simply is nothing that matches the excitement and intensity of playoff basketball. And while some may feel like they will have to continue waiting patiently until the night of February 9th when the L-L Tournament officially tips off for good, there are still ample opportunities to see many playoff hopefuls scrap and claw their way into securing bids over the next two weeks in head to head matchups. Case in point, Thursday night’s tussle between Manheim Central and Northern Lebanon.
To those that have been following along closely this season, not much needs to be said regarding Section 2. The division is absolutely brutal. And while it may be an excruciating grind on a nightly basis, the Manheim Central Barons have suddenly found themselves running amongst the lead dogs within the Section 2 standings, likely making it seem like just another winter in Manheim for this newly-minted “basketball town” with postseason hoops again on the brain.
For Northern Lebanon the story may read a little different if you are on the outside. But for those with a deep-rooted connection to the program, this season was identified as one to possibly remember for a long, long time in Fredericksburg behind a bevy of senior leaders while albeit coming off some difficult seasons in recent memory. Just ask Northern Lebanon head coach Chris George. “Obviously we have nine seniors here so this was the year for sure that we were looking to take some big steps,” George said of his 2017-18 squad. “We thought the last couple years we took a few missteps that cost us the playoffs so with not getting quite where we wanted the last couple years you start thinking, ‘This was the year we were looking to take the big step, but we didn’t take the medium steps to get there.”’
But even while returning a laundry list of veterans who were eager to make their imprint on the program this season, the injury bug can rise up and bite anyone at a moment’s notice. And it just so happened to strike the Vikings earlier this season, just badly enough to muddy the picture somewhat for the Vikes. But instead, Northern Lebanon was able to make lemonade out of lemons given the situation as several Vikings saw their opportunity to step up in the spotlight. And step up they did.
“When Michigan (Daub) was out for half the season and Cam (Gensler) missed our first week, the injuries started to pile up and you’re thinking ‘Man, this is gonna be tough.’ But whoever got in, Josh Bowers, Christian Trader, Thomas Folmer, stepped up big time. Whoever’s been in has just stepped up for us,” the head Viking went on to add regarding the depth and unselfishness of this year’s cast.
And through it all, the Vikings have persevered and stayed the course to become the darlings of Lancaster-Lebanon Boys’ Basketball this season. But even NL’s gaudy 13-4 overall record and 9-1 Section 3 mark was simply not enough to suffice just yet as the Vikings were out to knock off an old friend in Manheim Central when the Barons came calling to renew the series between these two former Section 3 foes on Thursday night.
Once the game itself got underway, it prove to be Northern Lebanon who would throw the first volley. Aided by two early triples from Alex Yeager and Caleb Light respectively, the Vikes jumped their guests early, racing out to the quick 6-2 start.
Yet even though the Barons would be able to get things back within a point following a Chase Marquette triple which made it a 6-5 contest in Northern Lebanon’s favor, the Vikings proceeded to run away once more as a 5-0 Viking blitz ensued, capped off by the traditional three point play courtesy of Caleb Light at the 3:30 mark of the first quarter.
But Manheim Central would refuse to yield as a Cameron Sell triple which came on the heels of a diligent Baron possession to say the least, sliced the Viking lead in half with NL now in front 11-8 with two minutes in change remaining in the first quarter before the buzzer finally sounded after the first eight minutes with Northern Lebanon being able to cling to the 11-10 advantage.
However just as Northern Lebanon was able to quickly pounce on Central at the outset of the contest, the Barons quickly returned the favor on their hosts to start the second stanza. The Barons were able to lay claim to their first lead of the ballgame following the old-fashioned three point play authored by 6’2” senior guard Connor Hostetter which put the Barons in front 13-11 just 20 seconds into the second quarter. From there, the Baron run would eventually swell to six as yet another three point play, this one by junior guard Evan Hosler, increased the Baron lead to five at 16-11 at the 5:10 mark of the first half.
And just as good teams do in the face of adversity, Northern Lebanon continued to fight and refused to give even an inch. Following the early Baron flurry, Northern Lebanon stuck to it and eventually raced back to tie the Barons at 18-18 following a 5-0 personal run by the Viking’s talented senior big man, Cam Gensler.
Despite the fact Cameron Sell would be able to immediately answer right back with a triple of his own which gave the lead back to the visitors from Manheim, Gensler was far from done being an enforcer on the night as 6’2” center ended the half by scoring the Vikings’ final nine, closing the book on a first half defined by defense with Northern Lebanon in front 22-21.
As far as the third quarter was concerned, let’s just say it was your cup of tea if defense is your flavor of choice. Between the two teams, both the Vikings and Barons went on to make a combined two field goals in the third quarter of play, helping set the stage a dramatic final quarter which was about to take place.
Ironically, Northern Lebanon’s lone field goal was tallied by Mr. Gensler, crediting him with an 11-0 run, carrying over from the second to fourth quarters. Needless to say, he was a key cog in the Northern Lebanon equation on Thursday night. “Against any team that doesn’t have a lot of size, he’s really the focal point of our offense,” Coach George said of his dominating bruiser who patrols the paint. “We knew tonight that Cam was a big focus for us and in all honesty, we probably just didn’t get him the ball enough. I’m not sure he touched the ball that much in the third quarter and he needs to. Central did a nice job though, give them credit. They were doubling, they were on the weak-side help, so we had to play off that.”
Although the offensive fireworks were in short supply during the third quarter, both teams wasted little time trading blows with one another once the game got inside the final period. Especially Manheim Central.
Sparked by a corner trey splashed in by Cameron Sell, the Barons were able to tie things back up at 26-26 at the 5:10 mark of the final quarter before Central proceeded to regain the lead following yet another trifecta by Cameron Sell, this one putting the Barons in front 29-28 before the advantage eventually grew to four at 32-28 following a three point play put home by Connor Hostetter which put MC up by a couple of possessions at 32-28 with just 3:40 left to play.
However if you’re sensing a theme here from Northern Lebanon whether it be Thursday night’s game or just the season at large, you’re not overthinking it. This Viking team simply contains a tough-nosed, all business mental mindset that is obvious to even the untrained eye.
Once again, down by three late proved to be no matter for Northern Lebanon as a cold-blooded Alex Yeager triple from the top of the key with the clock winding down sent the game into overtime after Central’s last second three bounced off the back rim, allowing the Barons and Vikings to play an additional four minutes of ball.
And just as he had at the end of regulation, Alex Yeager continued to have the hot hand for the Vikes in the extra session. The 5’11” senior proceeded to rattle off a 4-0 run of his own in the overtime which knocked Manheim Central back on their heels with the Vikings getting out in front 37-33 with 2:30 showing on the overtime clock.
Although Central would find an answer in the form of a Connor Hostetter drive to the rack which cut the Baron deficit down to two, a crucial Caleb Light drive to the tin would ensue as the Vikings reclaimed their four point advantage with time quickly running out on Manheim Central.
Yet just like their counterparts had displayed at various checkpoints throughout the game, Manheim Central would also answer the proverbial dinner bell with their backs against the wall. And right on cue, the Barons came out firing as a 3 ball popped by Jake Novak closed the gap to the slimmest of margins with MC now trailing 39-38 with just over one minute remaining in extra time.
From there, Michigan Daub would go on to toe the line, still held scoreless til that point in the contest. A somewhat tough ask with the game on the line. But the senior would prove to deliver as Daub split the pair with 57.7 remaining with MC going down to the other end of the floor and coming up empty after a missed 3, now sending Henry Hubbard to the line to repeat the task for Northern Lebanon. And just like his fellow senior teammate before him, Hubbard was able to go 1-2 from the stripe as well. An impressive accomplishment considering neither Daub nor Hubbard had entered their names into the scoring column yet to that point.
But it wouldn’t be so easy getting rid of Manheim Central on this night. No, the Barons would proceed to come right down the floor and counter with a Chase Marquette tip in to close the gap to within a point at 41-40 with 13.7 left to go.
This time another senior would walk the length of the floor with critical late free throws upcoming. It would be none other than Cameron Gensler. And just like any senior with the game on the line, he was able to deliver in spades as his 2-2 trip to the line pushed Northern Lebanon’s lead to 43-40 with the Barons having time one last try.
Ironically, the same player that sent the game into extra time would be the one to stop it from going any further as Alex Yeager was able to rise up and deflect the last ditch Baron three point attempt, giving Northern Lebanon the dramatic and intense 43-40 triumph over Manheim Central.
But this was a win that was perhaps a little extra sweeter than some of the others given the stakes. “We told our kids, that is the #2 team in Section 2. They’re playing all the big boys tough and in Section 2 there is no rest,” George said regarding the pregame message as it related to the Barons.
And yet, there was still that vivid recollection of the last time a team from higher than L-L Section 3 came into the Vikings’ loud house. “Penn Manor came in here and beat us. That was frustrating,” George went on to add regarding the homecourt defeat that Northern Lebanon suffered in the title game of their holiday tournament just one month ago. “I know we were down about it, but Penn Manor played really well and we didn’t. We told our guys look, that was frustrating, but we need to show a little bit better against the Section 1 and Section 2 teams.” As far as Thursday night was concerned, mission accomplished.
NEXT UP: With Thursday’s dip in the out of division pool, the Vikes jump right back in on Friday night as they entertain Pequea Valley before starting off a grueling three game stretch to close the regular season. A stretch which by the way, includes likely the other two league playoff-bound teams in Lancaster Catholic and Lancaster Mennonite.
“It’s Mennonite and Catholic. It’s one of those weeks,” Coach George said looking out onto the horizon. But let’s not forget, this is the same Northern Lebanon team which sent shockwaves across the L-L landscape they butted heads with the Blazers from Lancaster Mennonite earlier this season, coming away with a victory. The same goal which Coach George hopes is attainable as his Vikings prepare for the final stretch run. “All we can say is that we put ourselves in a really good spot. We took care of business to put ourselves in a position where we have a shot here.”
“Our goal needs to be at least get one of them,” George added regarding the upcoming Catholic and Mennonite contests. “The nice thing is, we control our destiny. If we beat both teams, then you put yourself in a spot to take the section.” And after a season in which they have defied the odds, why stop now?
As far as the Barons are concerned, the road to securing an L-L playoff spot in the landmine-filled Section 2 standings will be anything but a cakewalk. On Friday night, Manheim Central will travel to section rival Cocalico with the Eagles likely awaiting payback for the first game of the season between the two. A game in which Central essentially came out nowhere to win going away over in Manheim. After the Friday night trip to Denver, the Barons line up against arguably the best team in the entire league, L-S, before two other absolutely critical matchups against Garden Spot and Ephrata respectively as everyone looks to cross the finish line first in the mad dash known as Section 2.